Review: For Once, Hampstead Downstairs

“Perhaps this is what everyone else does, perhaps this is what adults do. I can just act happy.”

The Michael Frayn Space downstairs at the Hampstead Theatre has become something of a hot venue. A space for more experimental fare than one might be accustomed to in Swiss Cottage, it has not been a place where press critics have been invited to, instead encouraging audience feedback as plays are developed there. But in a change of policy, the doors to Pentabus Theatre’s For Once were opened and deservedly so, as it is a beautifully written, powerfully affecting play.

It is playwright Tim Price’s debut work, though he is one to watch with an upcoming play forming part of this year’s Donmar at Trafalgar Studios season and another commission for National Theatre Wales appearing next year. And with this three-hander about a family recovering from the aftermath of a terrible car accident that has sent shockwaves through the isolated rural community in which they live, he demonstrates a real skill for sensitive storytelling, resonating with a genuine understanding of the emotional interplay of people struggling to return to everyday life.

By using three overlapping monologues from Sid, the 17 year old left blind in one eye by the accident that also killed three of his friends, his mother April and his father Gordon, Price avoids focusing on the crash itself but instead slowly builds up a picture of life both before and after the accident, showing that rural charm has its limits even for those who live there. He suggests that the restlessness for teenagers in a small town with nothing for them to do could be extended to the adults too, as Gordon tells of his little escapades to b&bs in other towns to pursue his deeply repressed feelings and April struggles to deal with the looming empty nest syndrome.

The play is supported by three superb performances, all suggesting the loneliness of their different grief: Geraldine Alexander’s heartbreaking April, desperate to able to help her child whilst recognising he is growing up beyond her mothering reach; Patrick Driver’s inarticulate father, unable to express his true feelings about anything any more; and Jonathan Smith, simply astounding at capturing the gawkiness of late teenage-hood thrust cruelly into the real world and maturing before our very eyes as he comes to realise the impact of what has happened has spread far beyond the immediate effects on himself.

For Once is a beautiful little gem, piercingly sharp with its observations and laced with a dry humour that Orla O’Loughlin’s production utilises with skill to keep the tone gentle yet devastatingly true.

Running time: 70 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £4 but free castsheet also available
Booking until 30th July

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